The executive branch of the United States government consists of the president, the vice president and 15 Cabinet-level executive departments.
The president is elected every four years, and chooses his vice president as a running mate. The president is the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Armed Forces and is essentially the leader of the country. As such, he must deliver a State of the Union address to Congress once each year; may recommend legislation to Congress; may convene Congress; has the power to appoint ambassadors to other nations; can appoint Supreme Court justices and other federal judges; and is expected, with his Cabinet and its agencies, to carry out and enforce the laws of the United States.
The vice president, who also is a member of the Cabinet, serves as president in the event that the president is unable to do so for any reason or if the president steps down. The vice president also presides over the Senate and can cast a deciding vote in the event of a tie.
Fifteen cabinet members are appointed by the president after he is elected to run the government's executive departments; the Senate must approve all appointments. The Cabinet includes:
- The Department of Agriculture, among other functions, ensures that the food Americans consume is safe and regulates the nation's vast farming infrastructure.
- The Department of Commerce helps regulate trade, banking and the economy; among its agencies are the Census Bureau and the Patent and Trademark Office.
- The Department of Defense, which includes the U.S. Armed Forces, protects the nation's security and is headquartered at the Pentagon.
- The Department of Education is responsible for ensuring equal access to a quality education for all.
- The Department of Energy keeps the U.S. plugged in, regulating utilities, ensuring the security of power supplies and promoting new technology to conserve energy resources.
- Health and Human Services helps keep Americans healthy; its agencies include the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health and the Administration on Aging.
- The Department of Homeland Security, established in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, is charged with preventing terrorist attacks in the U.S. and helping to fight the war on terror and includes the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
- Housing and Urban Development promotes affordable home-ownership and ensures that no one is discriminated against in the pursuit of that goal.
- Interior is dedicated to protecting and nurturing natural resources, national parks and wildlife. Among its agencies are the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
- Justice, led by the Attorney General, enforces the nation's laws and includes, among other agencies, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
- The Department of Labor enforces labor laws and keeps workers' safety and rights protected.
- State is charged with diplomacy; its representatives reflect the United States as part of the world community.
- The Department of Transportation established the Interstate Highway System and keeps the U.S. transportation infrastructure safe and functioning.
- Treasury ensures the country's financial and economic stability, manages federal finances and collects taxes.
- Veterans Affairs provides medical care for wounded or ill veterans and administers veterans' benefits.
Phaedra Trethan is a freelance writer and a former copy editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper.